The Unmentionables

Anne Parouty, Dandelion2, 2016, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Anne Parouty, Dandelion2, 2016

“Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages,

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages,

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney sweepers, come to dust.”

William Shakespeare, ‘Cymbeline’, Act IV. Scene 2

The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is perhaps the most immediately recognisable of all common garden weeds. The long milky tap root has spawned an entire industry concerned with its removal. Long, short, blunt, sharp, hooked or straight there is no limit to the instruments of dandelion torture available to the vengeful gardener.

This voluminous apparatus is matched only by the plethora of names associated with the prolifically flowering weed. Dandelion itself is a derivative of the French ‘dent de lion‘ (lion’s tooth) a homage to their thick, deeply toothed leaves. Shakespeare described them using Warwickshire vernacular; golden lads was a local name inspired by the bright yellow petals whilst chimney sweeps was widely used in the 16th century. This was probably a reference to the shape of their seed heads or the similarity between the appearance of the seeds carried  away on a passing wind and ash hanging in the air surrounding a recently swept chimney.

More commonly encountered names include piss a bed and swine’s snout. The diuretic and laxative properties of dandelion have long been confirmed. Elizabeth Blackwell gave dandelion suitable prominence allowing it the first plate in her ‘Curious Herbal’. Blackwell notes the vigor of its nature claiming that it grows anywhere there is fallow land and flowers in all months of the year. She also notes its finger thick tap root filled with a bitter milk and its use in provoking urine and strengthening the stomach.

Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, published 1737-1739

Many peoples first encounter with the dandelion comes not as a gardener but as a child, blowing fluffy seeds from the ends of long, curvaceous stalks, in order to tell the time; the hour being the number of blows required to completely denude the head. Given that each flower can produce as many as 2,000 seeds, rarely will such a time keeper be thanked for spreading the weed seed further, and yet even as recently as the 19th century dandelions were cultivated as a useful source of food; a winter alternative to more conventional lettuce leaves which were then difficult to grow during the colder months of the year. Dandelion salad was particularly favoured by the port drinking class being useful for flushing out the kidneys and preventing gout.

Recently, the dandelion has emerged as a serious taxonomical headache. More than 200 microspecies have been identified and the common dandelion is now considered a complex species aggregate; Taraxacum officinale agg. So minute are the differences between microspecies that their identification has become a science in and of itself with those consumed by the task being called ‘taraxacologists’.

Rumours of a dandelion spotted at Winterbourne were quickly quashed, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Rumours of a dandelion spotted at Winterbourne were quickly quashed

“Dandelions grow anywhere that ground has been disturbed and often where it hasn’t! They will pop up in lawns, between paving slabs and cracks in brickwork. Mowing your lawn regularly will prevent dandelions from flowering and setting seed but ultimately chopping off the top will do nothing but encourage the weed to entrench itself further. For complete eradication the entire plant must be removed. You can use a specialist tool or simply an old butter knife. Whatever your weapon of choice the whole tap root must be extracted; dandelions can quickly re-grow from pieces of detached root which remain in the soil. Of course, if you wish to concede defeat, you can always throw in the trowel and toss together a dandelion salad!” Stephen Haines, Head Gardener, Winterbourne House and Garden

Anne Parouty produces cyanotype images using plant material collected at Winterbourne, secured to treated paper and exposed to light. Much of her work is informed by collections held at the nearby Cadbury Research Library. Here, a first edition of Blackwell’s ‘Curious Herbal’ is available to view.

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7 thoughts on “The Unmentionables

  1. How fascinating and intimidating all at once! I just wrote a blog post about this scourge, which thrives happily in my yard. Glad to hear the rumor at Winterbourne has been uprooted. Thank you for the beautiful lines from The Bard.


  2. How interesting!
    I love dandelions and my husband – who is the gardener around here – hates them.
    Personally I’d be happy with a lawn full of them but I realise the lawn would be no more after a short time.
    Maybe someone could design little astranaut bubble-helmets for the dandelion heads so that when the clocks arrive their seeds wouldn’t blow away everywhere.


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